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Saturday, 10 October 2009

Books – A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Star rating – 7/10

Tassie, our narrator for this new novel by Lorrie Moore, previously better known for her short stories, is a young student in her early twenties, who has escaped the boredom of her background in the mid West provinces of Dellacrosse, and come to be a student in the university town of Troy. She takes a part time job as a babysitter with a busy middle class couple called Sarah and Edward. The only thing is that there is no baby to sit as yet. Sarah and Edward are part way though an adoption process, and are keen to have Tassie on board every step of the way.

She thinks that Sarah especially is a bit sad. She sees to be a middle aged woman desperate to have a child, but not so desperate to tear herself away from her up market restaurant business. Sarah is viewed through the youthful eyes of Tassie on their first meeting - ‘Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured, and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment’. On one of their trips to view a prospective child to adopt Tassie begins to feel Sarah’s sadness. ‘These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep.’

Tassie’s world view is very amusing in places. Her observations send her mind whirring to past places, people and facts. At one of their meetings, the woman from the adoption agency leaves the room to make drinks and Tassie notes that ‘she returned to the room, carrying a tray with two bowls: one piled with creamers and one jammed with yellow packets of sweetener that I’d learned from friends had been invented accidentally by chemists during a reformulation of insecticide. Death and dessert, sweetness and doom, lay side by side: I was coming to see that this was not uncommon.’

Moore’s descriptive powers are wonderful, and add a really rich contextual backdrop to the story. Tassie is a very engaging character, and her thought process asides from the main action are relayed to the reader in marvellous detail. On accession, however, they do seem a bit distracting, as the narrative plot gets a little lost in their midst.

The central story of the emerging relationships between Sarah, her oft absent husband Edward, Tassie and their new charge Mary-Emma. Tassie and Emmie (as Sarah likes her new daughter to be referred to as) is very tender. And it could possibly have been made more of by Moore towards the end of the book. Things do not go smoothly in the household, and as the fragile happiness unravels Tassie finds herself at the heart of it.

The storytelling does loose its way a bit in the latter stages, the central story seems to be lost somewhat, with a lot of loose ends not tied up in detail. Possibly this is due to it being Moore’s first foray into the world of the novel. Nevertheless it is a captivating story, well told in the main, with brilliant and amusing detail throughout.

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